Category Archives: Container Ideas

Autumn Containers II: Using Succulents

After the lazy days of August, September can seem like the busiest month of the year. So many neglected chores, both inside and out, await attention. For a lot of us, the summer containers gracing our entryways need a makeover. You can buy a pot of mums or……

You can plant succulents.

Followers of this blog must know by now that I am a big succulent fan, and even after a wet and extremely humid spell, I can still say the succulents planters we did up earlier not only still look sweet, they are going to get better as the night temperatures become chilly. Cool night temperature bring out deep and rosy tones in the blue, olive and bronze foliage colors of the many non hardy succulents.  Many tender forms such as Echeveria ‘Black Princeand Senecio ‘Blazing Glory’, begin to bloom as do many hardy species of Sedum such as S cauticola  ‘Lidakense’ , ‘Turkish Delight’ and‘Dazzleberry’.

Succulents are mix and match plants. Of course, they all like the same sandy, well drained soil mix, and the colors all work well together. I’d like to add that the most interesting combinations include plants which have light, medium and dark tones. In this pair of planters, I’ve used Euphorbia tirucalli var rosea, commonly called ‘Sticks on Fire’ (guess how it got its common name) for height, the blue gray rosettes of Senecio ‘Blazing Glory’,  a coppery orange tinted Sedum nussbaumeranum, the soft yellow Sedum makinoi ‘Ogon’ and an olive tinted Sedum tetractinum to spill over the sides. Tucked in for added dark tones is Sedeveria ‘Jetbeads’.

Tips

1.When you group succulents together you can pack them in quite close together. They do not need a lot of nourishment nor water, and they don’t grow very fast.

2.The selections that are not hardy in your area will need protection when temperatures dip below freezing, and here we sometimes get a really cold night in late October, followed by a spell of Indian summer.  Either move the pot inside if a frost is in the forecast, or cover with a large tarp or blanket.

3. Once it becomes apparent that temperatures will be below freezing at night on a regular basis, bring your container into a frost free area that gets bright sunlight. If your container is too big to bring indoors, dig out the specimen plants you would like to keep and pot them up in a sandy quick draining soil mix. I plan to do a blog post about what to do about wintering over succulents in a month or so.

Related Blog Posts

September Container Report 2012, Summer Containers 2012Summer Containers2013, Sedum tetractinum, Graptosedum ‘California Sunset’, Sedum sieboldii 

Autumn Containers I: Fresh Candidates

Come on…how about a little imagination? There’s more to fall container gardening than a pot of mums which are already on display at the supermarket entrance.  I can allow that some folks love their tidy appearance and that these almost perfect balls provide an immediate color fix, but really, do we all have to be that predictable? Of course not.

Here in Massachusetts, I like to pot up end of summer/fall containers in late August to give plants a chance to kick in with some growth before cooler temperatures and shorter days slow things down.  I had this lovely turquoise pot begging me to fill it, so I selected colors that would sing, still nodding to late summer, but with approaching autumn hues.

The winter hardy perennials used here include: Heuchera ‘Southern Comfort’ and Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’. The Hedera ‘Amber Waves’ and the Coprosma repens ‘Tequila Sunrise’ can take temperatures in the 20’s without being fazed, and the Plectranthus ‘Velvet Elvis’ with its dark green/purple foliage will star as the flowers begin to show off in September and October. Yes it could get frosted on a really chilly night, but should one be forecasted while it is still showing off, cover the planter with a large tarp or move inside for the night.

Summer Containers…the before shots

Each year in recent history,  I have been documenting with images some of the containers I plant up here at Avant Gardens. I like to take images within a few weeks of planting, and then again in September. The September shots will show which containers still look incredible. Plant selections with minimal care requirements are used  in each of these groupings. Below, you will find combinations for shade, part shade and sun.

For shade/pt. shade:

Begonia ‘Concorde’ with Cissus discolor,  Stromanthe ‘Tricolor’ and Pilea

Begonia thurstonii, with Coleus ‘Odalisque’ and Begonia ‘MK Elegance’

Begonia ‘MK Elegance’ with Hedera ‘Little Diamond’

Coleus ‘Limon Blush’, Begonia ‘Chocolate Red’ and Oxalis ‘Copper Glow’

for part shade/sun:

For sun or part shade: Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger with Coprosma ‘Marbel Queen’Pelargonium tomentosum and a purple leaved Tradescantia 

for sun:

Eucomis ‘Sparking Rosy’ with Oxalis triangularis, Helichrysum ‘Limelight’ and Tradescantia ‘Blue Sue’

Fan favorite: Classic Bowl with Mixed Succulents

Senecio cylindricus dominates this large basalt bowl (22″)

30″ ceramic trough with Senecio ‘Blazing Glory’, Echeveria, various SedumSenecio talinodes  & Sedeveria

My favorite pot with Aeonium, Euphorbia and Echeveria

 Closeup:  Aeonium ‘Schwartkop’ with Kalanchoe, Echeveria & Sedum morganianum

The vertical garden was planted in late March, and now little  Delosperma ‘Firespinner’ is beginning to flower

Echeveria ‘Afterglow’ with Phormium ‘Pink Stripe’ and Dichondra

You can mix succulents with other plants which don’t mind dry conditions (like the combination above). Even though we have had an unusually large amount of rainfall lately in the northeast , all of our succulents and begonias are still thriving because we use a sandy well drained soil mix.  If you use a regular or rich potting soil, you chance disappointment from plants rotting away.

Check back in September, when I post the “after” shots!

Growing Vertically with Succulents

A vertical garden of tender succulents at Avant Gardens

Over the past few years there has been a lot of buzz about vertical gardens. Patrick Blanc, the French botanist, has created some amazing spaces on a large scale, using a wide variety of plants to transform whole buildings. Of course there is more to his vertical gardens than meets the eye. His crews construct huge freestanding armatures with built in irrigation systems, which is a necessity for the types of plants he uses. A big concern for me concerning his designs is plant hardiness. This is not a problem with his indoor or tropical climate gardens, but how does one sustain these plantings in northern climates without huge plant losses?

We considered how we could turn this concept of using vertical space into something more practical that most gardeners could implement on their own. What type of plantings would not need an irrigation system built in? Chris and I decided we could create sustainable vertical gardens using rot resistant wood for the boxes and plant them with drought tolerant succulents which will survive quite well without lots of water.  They hold up well the entire growing season on a sun filled south facing wall, and could be taken down for the winter. The boxes could either be brought indoors if they were planted with tender succulents, or if planted with hardy succulents, laid on the ground, covered with a winter mulch. Here?s a quick how to:

Materials:

Rot resistant wood such as cedar or mahogany.We used 1 x 4’s for the box and frame, and 1 x 8’s for the backing.

Wire mesh with 1-2″ openings

Well drained succulent potting soil and assorted low growing succulents

Prepared Box with for planting.

Decide what your dimensions will be and build your box. Fill with a well-drained succulent potting soil.

Lay a wire grid over the soil. This will help secure plants in place while they root in.

Begin by placing focal point succulents

I always start by first placing  the showiest plants. You may need to cut wider openings in the wire mesh to allow for bigger roots.

Fill in with a variety of complimentary succulents.

I then fill in around my focal point plants with other low growing succulents. Be careful not to select plants that tend to grow tall.

Your best choices are plants which are going to stay under 4″, especially ones that stay under 2″.

After the planting is done, you can attach the frame.

All filled in….hang horizontally or vertically, you decide.

Plants will establish good root systems in 6-8 weeks, or even more quickly in warm weather. Some plants may overtake their neighbors, so a little trimming back could be necessary.  You may also want to tuck in a cutting here and there to refine your “painting” as it grows out.

Watering can be done by spraying the plants with a hose early in the day (be careful not to water when the sun is strong or you will get water scars on the foliage). Or, remove the box from its mount, lie flat and give a good soak. Succulents are not plants that need a lot of fertilization, but if you think it’s necessary you can use a diluted fish emulsion to give them an occasional boost.

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The Impatiens Dilemma, or is it?

SunPatiens….It will give you color, and will take quite a bit of shade.

I’ll admit it. With so many other more interesting plants to choose from, I’ve never been a big fan of common Impatiens, unless the foliage had something interesting going on, and I do not mean the blight. You’ve no doubt heard about the blight affecting Busy Lizzies (Impatiens walleriana) and Balsam Impatiens (Impatiens Fusion series). Downy Mildew, introduced from  plants imported from Europe, has swept the US, and without constant use of a fungicide, most plants will succumb before summer’s end. The disease is air borne, so healthy plants purchased and planted in pristine soil can still get it. If you must have Impatiens (and it is true that not much else will produce so much flower power in the shade), New Guinea types, including the new Sunpatiens (Impatiens) seem to be resistant. We’re trying a few selections of the Sunpatiens (they also can stand shade). Can’t say I love them, but they may have their place.

My suggestion for bold color massing in shade: Coleus…especially varieties with yellow and gold coloring (the deep reds can get a little muddy looking in shade. And don’t forget about all the tropical foliage plants….yes they need heat, but there are so many options. And for containers, there’s so many fun hardy plant combinations to try: Hakonechloa, Heuchera, Hydrangea. Take a look at a few options.

Coleus ‘Big Blond’ with Cuphea

Tropical Foliage, Amazing Variety of Forms.

Colocasia ‘Elena’ for Drama!

Our featured Abutilon, Mini Spider Plant with Syngonium Combo

I fell for this Hydrangea, Hakonechloa Combo at Blithewold in RI.

There are tons of more options, if you don’t need waves of shocking red, orange and white. Have you any thoughts on interesting alternatives to Impatiens?

There’s still time to deck the pots with….

I was trying to ignore the holidays this year. A visit to the west coast for our son’s mid year college graduation filled our calendar in early December.  I had started to rethink the winter containers before I left, but didn’t get very far. Upon returning home there was a ton of unfinished business to attend to. We aren’t hosting a Christmas gig this year. No little children to dazzle and excite. A part of me said why do you want to give yourself more to do?

Then, last night, while driving home, passing house after house decked with holiday lights and showy front door entries, I really felt shamed pulling into our driveway. No lights to greet me, no glow of a Christmas tree inside.  Does anybody live here?  That was the message our place was saying. Not a good one.

Here’s what I got done so far this morning.

The before picture: Why not leave the Euphorbia?

The after picture: Cut Greens, Red and Yellow Twig Dogwood. Simple!

Detail: Red Twig and ‘Winter Flame’ Dogwood’ with Euphorbia ‘Blackbird’

Winterberry Pot: Red Twig Dogwood, Winterberry, Hinoki Cypress, Christmas Rose, and Variegated Mondo Grass

Detail: Helleborus ‘Jacob’ with Ophiopogon Pamela Harper and Winterberry

Finished the wreath for the front door. It’s not good lighting to take a photo right now, but maybe tonight, with a few Christmas lights!

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Winter Solstice Greetings to all!

Sedum tetractinum

Here is a little plant that is versatile, super hardy and foolproof (as long as you grow it in sun and well drained soil). It hasn’t been in the US very long, but already has acquired the common names of  “Chinese Stonecrop”, as it hails from Asia,  and “Coral Reef” , (still not sure what the Coral Reef reference is). Sedum tetractinum grows only 1-2″ tall, and spreads modestly, rooting into the soil as it creeps along. It is especially dramatic spilling over edges: retaining walls, pottery, troughs, you name it.

Sedum tetractinum is also lovely enough to use in mixed succulent planters. Its rounded olive green leaves turn a lovely copper bronze shade in the autumn, and this  color change contrasts well with other shades of succulent foliage.  In the planter you see here it is paired with tender Sedum adophii and Euphorbia tirucalli, but it could easily accent hardy Sedum ‘Angelina and Sempervivum. Pale yellow flowers appear in summer, but the blossoms are not the highlight.  “Chinese Stonecrop” takes temperatures as cold as minus 30F (zones 4-9).

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September Report: Successful Containers

I have always thought that what makes great visual art is when an object or painting compels you to look at it again and again. I feel the same way about plants and gardens, and containers. Of course, plants are constantly changing, so plantings are ephemeral compositions. Perhaps that’s why we want to take in their beauty all the more. Here are some planted containers that have looked good all summer, and still do in mid September.

Large Succulent Bowl on a pedestal, perhaps more beautiful than ever.

Composed of odds and ends succulents left over from last season, this ensemble has married well.

Aeonium ‘Schwartkop’ was the highlight of this tall river pot.

Syngonium ‘Neon’, an easy and lovely shade foliage plant.

Begonia ‘Chocolate Pink’ with Pilea and Cissus discolor

Peachy Abutilon ‘Harvest Moon’, with the adorable curly Spider Plant and a white Syngonium…great, easy pot for partial shade.

The Chocolate Mimosa Tree, Albizzia ‘Summer Chocolate’, makes a fast growing subject for container, adding height, texture, and dark coloring.

We did a posting of some planted containers in early July. A number of these containers sold, and we hear they still look smashing. As you can see, it’s mostly about foliage. What are your favorite container combinations from this season?

Thoughts on Winter Containers

Cut Greens and Yellow Twig Dogwood

It seems a little late to talk about winter containers but we’ve had such a mild end to autumn here in the northeast, we’ve only just begun to “replant” for the winter season. And you may note that I used “replant” in quotations.  This is because, after years of experimenting, we think many cold climate gardeners are really better off using cut evergreens and twigs over living plants for winter containers.

From a frugal viewpoint, using living plants seems like a wise investment at first. Indeed, a planted Boxwood, Juniper or Holly will carry on well through December and the first part of January in most winters. It’s mid winter conditions that are the problem. We often lack the benefit of consistent snow cover to blanket roots. Dessicating arctic winds are really cruel to evergreens whether planted in or above ground. Water cannot be taken up when the soil is frozen.

Winterberry, Red-Twig Dogwood, and Euphorbia

If you do have your heart set on using live plants, or you have protected spots or live in milder zones, consider using Dwarf Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars) or other hardy conifers such as Dwarf Spruce (Picea) and Arborvitae (Thuja), which tend to be hardy through zones 5, and even 4  or 3. We have had great luck with Dwarf Conifers in troughs, and stress we’re successful because we make sure the soil is sharply drained and have protection from wind. It also doesn’t hurt to use an anti-dessicant.

As far as colorful twigs and branches, thoughts go immediately to the Red and Yellow Twigged Dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera and sanguinea cvs.). These will winter over in pots, but cut material works as well if not better, since one large plant of Twigged Dogwood with many branches would need a rather large container to accomodate its root ball and would be an otherwise underwhelming subject the rest of the year.

Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brillantissima’ with cut greens

There are other options. Consider  planting deciduous plants that are hardy to a zone or two colder than the one you garden in. Since they are deciduous, they do not have to hydrate foliage in winter. This autumn we replanted a large pot using a native plant, Chokeberry a.ka. Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’  for height, fall color and fruit, underplanted with Plectranthus ciliatus and Ivy. For December’s display, we replaced the tender Plectranthus with cut greens and red twig Dogwood, while the Aronia’s dangling red fruit clusters continue to be showy. Our hope is that in early spring the Aronia will bear clusters of white flowers, providing a third season of interest. Since Aronia is hardy to zone 4, (we’re in 6) we expect theres a good chance for that!  (PS..3 years later the Aronia has not only thrived but has needed root pruning and trimming back!)

Other options for deciduous shrubs or small trees that might make good winter container subjects include Witchhazel (Hamamelis) which would provide blossoms in late February, then autumn foliage. Dwarf Columnar Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus Columnaris Nana’   makes a well behaved compact columnar subject that seems to tolerate growing in containers well. It’s too bad that one of our former favorites, Rhamnus frangula ‘Fine Line’ was added to the banned in Massachusetts plant list. It is hardy into zone 3, has great form, texture and size, and for the record, (attention conservationists) we’ve had it on our property for 8 years, and have yet to come across a single seedling.

Have you experimented with multi-season interest plants in your containers? Which ones have worked out well?